At the age of 48, Zinyet Veliyeva walked down the Cato Walk for the first time wearing a light blue shirt and black pants. Her eight-year-old son Hassan pushed her wheelchair.
“I’ve seen videos from previous shows,” says Velieva. “Most of the models were thin and I said why not have a fat model.”
While still at school, Velieva had a stroke that led to paraparesis, a partial loss of movement in the legs. She competed in archery for the 2012 London Paralympics, becoming the first female Paralympic athlete for Azerbaijan.
She likes jumpsuits, t-shirts, and pants — especially when they’re colorful — but you can’t just pull them on and off because they don’t have zippers and buttons where you want them.
Over the summer, Veliyeva was one of 20 models who participated in the Kekalov Adaptive Fashion Show at the Marriott Absheron Hotel in Baku.
Male and female models with various disabilities took to the catwalk on their own or with the help of a packed audience.
The show was the brainchild of 21-year-old student Muhammed Kekalov. Months ago, he visited Veleyeva and her husband Ghalib Aliyev at their home with his business partner Rashada Aliyeva, Azerbaijan’s first fashion designer. Aliyev is crippled after losing his leg when he fell on a land mine during the first of two wars between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia in the past 30 years. The clashes resulted in hundreds of amputations and deaths.
Aliyev often wondered if there should be a better way to dress: “I thought it was more convenient to undress and dress with a prosthesis,” he said.
Aliyeva and Kekalov talked with Aliyeva and created clothes according to what he said. Aliyev then tested his inventions and commented on what worked and what didn’t.
Kekalov was inspired to start the business by his late grandmother, Salimat Kekalova. She was visually impaired so getting dressed could be a challenge. Coupled with spending a year with an American family caring for disabled children, he was inspired to think of adaptive clothing as a solution.
“Like my grandfather, I see the same with the people we work with. If they need help or have trouble getting dressed, we ask them. They say they don’t, but we found out they have trouble wearing them. They’re so used to it, they don’t see it as a problem, but as an everyday reality.”
This is one of the reasons why he organizes catwalk shows – he has done three now – he believes that those who do will feel more confident about their bodies. “They avoid stigma and that’s the main reason we do it,” he says.
The first two shows were held last year. The initial cost was $13,000 (£15,500), paid by the US Embassy in Azerbaijan; In the second, Kekalov was selling the concept, encouraging companies to buy sponsorships to show solidarity with the disabled.
Rahim Razayev, 36, wears a turquoise Hawaiian shirt and wide-leg white pants with buttons down both sides. Like Veliyeva, who followed the scene on social media, he said: “Anyone who doesn’t take a risk gets nothing.”
Rzayev, who recently got married and is a father, has had severe scoliosis since he was six, a curve in his spine and a crooked bone in his right leg.
The course was limited to a limited number of two weekly home visits by one teacher. He now earns a living by selling handmade products but struggles to find clothes: “When I wear trousers, my waist is small and narrow. If the waist is right, the hem is too long.”
Rzayev convinced his friend Khayam Rahimov to play with him on the show. Rahimov is anemic and his legs are of different lengths; He had already covered his untidy clothes with a heavy jacket.
The clothes Kekalov produces range in price from £130 to £215, putting them out of reach for many Azerbaijanis, whose average monthly salary is £420. The team therefore gives their clothes to the models.
But Kekalov says the show has to be financially viable. “Our plan is to have a supply chain to sell products in Western countries, for example Germany, where there is a proven way of aligned fashion brands.”
Kekalov is talking to representatives and fashion designers in countries with a “similar disability ecosystem” in Georgia, Turkey and Uzbekistan. The group plans to hold a series of shows in each of these countries this year using disabled models.
“It helps us better understand how fashion addresses disability and geographic cultural aspects,” Kekalov said.
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